A New Lawn for the 21st Century

Here are four things you may not know about America’s lawns. Who uses more pesticides? Farmers on their agricultural crops, or homeowners on their lawns? The answer? Homeowners. According to the non-profit, Beyond Pesticides, suburban lawns and gardens receive more pesticide applications per acre (3.2-9.8 lbs) than agriculture (2.7 lbs per acre on average).

Next question. What is the largest “crop” grown in the U.S.? Corn? Soybeans? Nope. Lawns. Unfortunately, we don’t harvest our lawns for food. “As of 2005, lawns covered an estimated 63,000 square miles of America. That’s about the size of Texas. It’s the most grown crop in the United States—and it’s not one that anyone can eat; it’s primary purpose is to make us look and feel good about ourselves,” from The American Obsession with Lawns. Onward to the next question.

A lawn can be downsized to become a decorative accent, rather than the predominant feature of the landscape. Shown here: a low-mow lawn with added clover.

How much fertilizer—according to the EPA—do Americans apply to their lawns every year? Answer? 70 million pounds. Each. Year. Fertilizer may be a quick way to green grass. But it’s also a quick way to green our waters and choke them with harmful algal blooms. Through misuse or overuse of fertilizer, fertilizer becomes a pollutant as it mixes with stormwater and contaminates streams, lakes, ponds and wetlands. But fertilizer doesn’t need to be misused to be harmful. Nitrate from lawn fertilizer is highly soluble and readily leaches into groundwater. And more than one-third of Americans rely on groundwater for their drinking water.

America’s obsession with the perfect lawn may be starting to loosen. Gaining in popularity are “bee” or “eco-lawn” seed mixes—mixes that often offer varieties of clover, low growing flowers, and fescues—that provide sustenance to pollinators and other wildlife.  The lawns resulting from these mixes require no fertilizer, and infrequent mowing and watering. Herbicides and pesticides, which would defeat the purpose of trying to attract pollinators, are not applied to these lawns. No-mow, or low-mow fescue lawn seed mixes, also called “eco-lawns” due to their negligible need for inputs and mowing, are also becoming easier to find.

Clippings are a valuable source of nutrients and you can use less nitrogen fertilizer if you recycle clippings to the lawn.

First season of a new bee lawn. White Dutch clover, microclover, fescue varieites, and yarrow were over-seeded into a traditional Kentucky bluegrass lawn. Plugs of Pennsylvania sedge were also planted into the lawn.

Natalie Shanstrom, landscape architect and owner of Pasque Ecological Design, thinks there should be a lot more experimenting with native plants to create bee lawns. “Sky blue aster self-seeded into my lawn and it blooms every fall even though it gets mowed down to three inches regularly. This aster can grow to over 6 feet tall in the prairie part of my garden, but it does fine at three inches in my lawn,” she notes. Shanstrom thinks it would be well worth trying many other natives in a lawn.

Sky blue aster has self seeded into designer Natalie Shanstrom’s lawn. These asters bloom every fall even though they are regularly mowed down to 3″ all season long.

“If sky blue aster blooms at three inches in my lawn, many others probably will, too.” Shanstrom, who is experimenting with her own yard to create a lawn that doubles as a robust ecological asset, believes the ideal bee lawn would include typical families and functional groups found in a prairie, including legumes (partridge pea, and purple and white prairie clovers), composites (asters, goldenrods, prairie coreopsis, pussytoes), and mints (blue hyssop, mountain mint), and prairie and nodding onion, as well . “That would go a long way toward filling the niches that are often filled by thistles and dandelions, and creeping Charlie in a lawn, and would also provide pollinators the food nutrition with which they have evolved.”

The “Herb de Lawn” is one of many resilient, sustainable lawn seed mixes offered by Pro Time Lawn Seed, based in Oregon. Pro Time flowering and alternative lawn seed mixes thrive in many regions of the country.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Luckily, many resources are available to learn more about sustainable lawn care. Seed mixes are available for over seeding as well as “starting from scratch” or, starting over. To learn more, check out the below links for additional learning and seed sourcing.

Learn More
Resources to Get You Started:
What is a Bee Lawn?

How to Solarize your Lawn: Herbicide-free Lawn Removal
Pro Time Ecology and Alternative Lawns
About Flowering Lawns

No-Mow and Low-Mow Seed Mixes:
Prairie Moon Nursery
Prairie Nursery
Pro Time

Flowering Lawns:
Simple Bee Lawn Mix for Midwest and Eastern States
Do-it-Yourself Flowering Bee Lawn

Want to Keep Your Traditional Lawn? Learn about Best Practices for Lawn and Soil Care (Hint: with time, your lawn will be easier to care for than it is now)
How to Turn your Lawn into an Ecological Asset: Feed the Soil, Not the Grass
Mowing Practices for Healthier Lawns

To purchase the “Pesticide Free” lawn sign, contact Wild Ones.

Interested in more articles on how to green your yard, block, neighborhood, community? Sign up to receive The Butterfly Effect journal in your inbox twice a year.

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